A Chinese student who did his master's in the US talks about the cultural differences he experienced

By Li Kaizhi
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail Beijing Review, April 8, 2021
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It's not too cold in the southern U.S. city of Dallas, Texas, in late fall, and we can see people still wearing T-shirts outside. But every time I entered the classroom, I would put on my coat, and carry my thermos with hot water. It made me look different from the other students.

During my stay in the U.S., I would encounter many more differences that left me perplexed. However, they taught a lesson that I feel is as important as, if not more crucial than, academic studies—cross-cultural communication calls for appreciating diversity.

As a hot water addict, sometimes I drank all the water and needed more. One day, I went to a coffee shop to get some hot water.

I politely asked the shop assistant if I could buy a cup of hot water. The girl was first surprised by the question, and then said with a smile that hot water was free. I was impressed by Texan hospitality.

I insisted on paying for the water, but she didn't take the money. In retrospect, I think I should have left a tip, but I didn't realize it at the time as I didn't yet understand the tip culture.

When I saw my classmates with bare legs and drinking iced Coke, I always wondered how much damp and cold they must be accumulating in their bodies. In traditional Chinese medicine philosophy, dampness and cold can cause many health problems. Then I thought perhaps they ate high-calorie food or maybe drank hot coffee to fight the cold. 

I stayed with a local family who provided my friend and me with a free room, food and other support. 

A Chinese saying goes, "When receiving drips of water in need, I shall return the kindness with a spring." I showed my appreciation for the kindness of the family by teaching them Chinese, giving them Chinese souvenirs, and sharing knowledge about Chinese culture and traditions.

There was one occasion when my host Brad invited his neighbors and friends to celebrate the birthday of his 1-year-old son. I asked if other people were coming, and Brad told me that he had also invited his parents.

When I heard the word "invite," I was a little confused. Why did he have to "invite" his own parents? Then I was surprised to know that his parents had not yet met their grandchild. In China, grandparents are eager to see the newborn in the family right away and wait at the door of the delivery room.

According to Brad, the elderly in America normally live alone. But in China, many people consider it a disgrace to let the elderly live alone or send them to a nursing home if their children have the capacity to support them.

In Chinese classrooms, in order not to interrupt the teacher's thoughts and delay the overall progress of the class, students usually don't ask questions during the class. They jot down the questions and ask the teacher after the lecture is over. In the U.S., however, they can raise hands at any time to ask a question and the teacher answers without having to worry about whether it would take up the time of other students.

Each of the two methods has its advantages. In China, students show more respect and care about the overall progress. The U.S. advocates in-class discussion and others are able to get new ideas from the questions.

During the class, I tried to ask questions like my American classmates. But, to be honest, I didn't feel comfortable about being in the limelight. 

I think we should respect the differences and not judge which side is better. After all, there is no universal standard for good form of education.

Differences in countries, races and geographic environments create cultural differences, which lead to differences in perceptions and behavior. We should learn to appreciate one another's culture and find common ground.

The author attended the University of Texas at Dallas, the U.S., in 2016-17.

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